"Bloody coons," said my friend. I stopped the car and told him to get out

The language of the white, hetero racist is becoming acceptable, even trendy, among the young urban class. This week, I have twice been accused of sounding like Margo from the Good Life for asking "why?" a xenophobic comment was considered "funny".

On Jemma's birthday, we ended up, through sheer laziness, in the worst pub in the area. The aptly named "Nobody's Inn" (as in, "the lights are on, but . . .") was full of local piss-heads, white legs in miniskirts and middle-aged men with beer guts. Behind me, a lone man with staring eyes listened avidly as Evi and I chatted about the Vagina Monologues. He got so overexcited that he slipped off his chair and landed between us, his lower lip damp and quivering. "Ugh, get away," said Evi. He leaned back in his chair, just enough for us to resume our chat. It was 2am when we left, and the weirdo lurched behind us yelling: "I'll do the lot of you." I grabbed two men in suits who were passing and asked them to walk with us until the scary stalker got bored.

Edward and Nick were "Nobody's Inn" regulars. They were moaning about the changes to their favourite boozer. Apparently, the old bar staff had left, there were loads more fights now, and drugs were everywhere. The reason for this decline in a once fine boozer was "Too many Fergals". Fergals? "Yeah," one of them winked, "Fergal Sharkeys. Darkies." They hooted with laughter. (Yes, some people really do still say "darkies".)

"That's not funny," I said.

They groaned and insisted: "But it's true." Strange, then, that all evening I saw only two black men in the bar, and they kept themselves to themselves. How, I wondered, could they be causing so much anarchy? The suits stormed off.

More of the same was on its way, but from - for me - a more surprising quarter. On Saturday, in Stoke Newington, I was driving two very good friends to lunch. As I pulled out of a side road, a car appeared from nowhere and undertook me on the bend. The driver was a black woman in her fifties.

Joshua, a thirtysomething TV producer, normally to be found "chilling out" with his pal, Colin the Rasta, muttered: "Bloody coons." It wasn't even said under his breath. It was voiced loudly and confidently in the back of my bloody car. His tone of voice said: "They'll both agree with this and laugh as well." I couldn't believe my ears. My mind desperately searched for the appropriate response. He must be joking, I reasoned, many of his friends are black. But surely that he "should know better" just makes it worse, answered my inner voice.

Slowing down and staring at him in the rear-view mirror, I said: "I can't believe you just said that. What a disgusting thing to say."

I was sure he would be embarrassed as soon as he was put on the spot, and that the whole incident was just a one-off aberration. Joshua and Jemma started laughing as if I were being a big, silly, oversensitive girlie. "C'mon, Lauren," he said, "the blacks are different around here, aren't they? They aren't like our friends. It's not colour I have a problem with, it's class. I'm a snob, not a racist. Around here, they're just the wrong class of black for me, that's all."

We've known each other for years and they had never, ever spoken like this before. Or had I ignored it? I pulled over to the kerb, certain of one thing only: if a stranger had made comments like that, I'd kick him out of my car.

"Get out," I said.

"Ooohh," came the giggled reply. My anger at the word "coons" was not fashionable. I was being "uncool" and "confrontational".

It's a depressing sign of the political times that those who bother to voice long-held and unchanging beliefs are either laughed at or dismissed as well-meaning but woefully out of date.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Best of young British